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In the news 6 March 2020

UCU sets out path for real change for higher education and an end to the strikes

UCU said yesterday that it believed agreements that could put the union and the sector on the right footing and bring about real long-term change in the way staff are treated were in reach. In a message to members, UCU general secretary Jo Grady said that the union had made it crystal clear that it was not inflexible and, in the interests of securing long-term change, had offered to compromise on some of the demands behind the two university disputes. 

Jo said that Ucea - the university representatives in the four fights dispute - had been receptive in principle to many of the additions and amendments which the union had asked for. She said the prospects of progress on the three non-pay elements had allowed the union's negotiators to indicate that an offer of a 3% increase in pay to members could resolve the dispute.

Jo said the kind of progress seen in the four fights talks had been mirrored in the USS pensions dispute. She said that employers had finally started to work with the union with genuine commitment on longer-term reforms to the scheme and had started to push for a better approach to its valuation. Jo said it was again disappointing that it took strike action to make them do this, but the negotiators said that the action had made a real difference to the way the employers had engaged with the union. In a similar vein to the four fights disputes, and keen to move things forward, the negotiators indicated that they would be willing to recommend an offer of 8.4%. 

 

Time for a serious response from universities, says UCU

Writing about the strikes in iNews, Jo Grady said, despite efforts by universities to paint them as greedy, staff are motivated by delivering proper change in a host of key areas such as workloads, job security and equality.

She reminded readers that has always been within universities' gift to stop the disruption and end the disputes. Yet she points out that, as when members were striking in November, some institutions seem more obsessed with trying to scare staff and students off picket lines than actually dealing with the issues at the heart of the disputes.

She concludes by once again thanking students for their phenomenal support and reassures them that the union is doing all it can to try and get things sorted out. However, to move forward, we need a serious response from universities.

 

Fear of "reputation damage" prompts secret Russell Group meeting to call for leadership on casualisation

Casual contracts are affecting the physical and mental health of staff and having a negative impact on students' learning, according to a secret report from universities in the Russell Group. Leaked minutes of a virtual meeting last Tuesday (25 February) on casualisation said Russell Group universities needed to "show leadership" to "avoid further reputational damage".

The report warned that politicians and others are starting to express concerns about the casualisation of university teaching and research, as well as a lack of support for staff. UCU said the document showed again how divided universities were over the issues at the heart of the university strikes. While the Morning Star said the document was proof that universities were "running scared".

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Jo Grady said: 'The report shows some universities do understand the extent of casualisation in our institutions, and the serious damage it does to the health of staff and education of students. Sadly, it looks like it is fear of reputational damage, rather than concern for staff or students, that has prompted universities to act on casualisation.'

 

UCU urges minister to back students' call for universities to do more to end strikes

On Monday UCU wrote to new universities minister Michelle Donelan asking her to encourage universities to do more to end the wave of strikes at 74 UK universities. The union was responding to a letter from concerned student officers that set out their worries about the ongoing disruption to students' education.

In a letter to the minister, UCU and the groups negotiating on behalf universities in the current disputes, the students said they backed UCU's fight for better pensions and pay and conditions and urged universities to "deliver a resolution that is agreeable to [the union]".

Jo Grady said: 'Students are rightly worried about the disruption and the intransigence from their universities. We have been heartened by their support throughout the dispute and can reassure them that we are doing all we can to try and find a resolution.'

During Education Questions in the House of Commons on Monday, shadow education scretary Angela Rayner also raised the issue of the university strikes, prompting education secretary Gavin Williamson to call on all sides to work towards a resolution as quickly as possible.

 

More to graduate earnings than just a degree, says UCU

UCU said on Saturday that many factors influenced graduate earnings and that better careers advice and an overhaul of university admissions could help level the playing field. The union was responding to a report published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies for the Department for Education, which shows that a degree boosts a person's earning potential by £100K on average over their lifetime. 

Speaking to the BBC, Jo Grady warned against making simplistic links between the quality of a course and future salaries. She said that earnings potential is heavily impacted by factors such as an individual's background, their parents' jobs, their gender, where they are from and where they live after graduating.

She told the Guardian that: 'It is vital to recognise that education is about much more than just financial benefit. Focussing on future income following university ignores the wider benefits that education brings to individuals and to society.'

 

Focus on graduate earnings a result of the market in higher education

Responding to the Guardian's take on the report, Professor Des Freedman from Goldsmiths, said that, putting aside the focus on the fact that one-fifth of students don't benefit financially from earning a degree, rather than on the fact that four-fifths of students do benefit, the story taps into a narrow, instrumentalist view of the "value" of higher education that equates it not with personal development but solely with financial benefit.

In a letter to the paper, he says that quite why the research is described as "groundbreaking" is never made clear, but that it will certainly have been warmly greeted by a government that is determined to further implant an overwhelmingly economistic logic in the higher education system in coming funding reforms.

In contrast, he says that the news will have been received with despair on the picket lines of the 74 universities whose UCU members are in the middle of sustained strike action to defend both working and learning conditions. He concludes that the imposition of a higher education "market" has fostered instability across the sector with resulting redundancies and cuts in provision, such as the decision by Sunderland University to close its history, languages and politics degrees.

 

Students back overhaul of university admissions

UCU's campaign to radically overhaul how and when students apply to university got another boost this week as iNews reported that students backed a system where they apply after they have their A-level results.

Over half of students (56%) said they wanted a system of "post-qualification applications" (PQA). Of the remaining respondents, 22% agreed that predicted grades should be removed from the application process.

The proportion backing change is consistent with separate polling done by Universities UK last month where they asked recent graduates if universities should only make offers after people have received their results. UCU said last week that a review of admission launched by the Office for Students was "the opportunity for us to finally move to a system where university offers are based on actual achievement rather than unreliable estimates of potential."

 

Universities next in line for government fire, warns think tank

Universities are bracing themselves for unprecedented scrutiny as the government turns its attention to how the sector can deliver on the prime minister's so-called "levelling up" agenda, warned the Guardian this week.

A report by the right-wing Policy Exchange think tank said universities had lost "the faith of the nation in some critical areas" and flagged familiar ministerial concerns about failures to protect freedom of speech on campus, so-called "low quality" degrees that offered poor economic returns, excessive senior pay and degree grade inflation.

Jo Grady said it was a vital time for the higher education sector, with reform of tuition fees and admissions still in the offing. She said: 'Vice-chancellors do look out of touch when they are enjoying massive salaries and all sorts of perks and their staff are forced to take industrial action to fight for fair pay, working conditions and pensions. Universities must ensure they work with staff and students to ensure a sustainable future for the sector and, post-Brexit, ensure they remain open to the international community.'

 

Freedom of speech battles mustn't lead to campus self-censorship

The freedom of speech "debate" received attention elsewhere this week. In the Guardian, Jonathan Wolff noted that disgraced former Office for Students board member Toby Young has even set up a freedom of speech union. Although, it is unclear exactly what it does other than assist with Twitter pile-ons.

Wolff warned that power can be exercised overtly or implicitly. But most damaging of all, it can seep inside and make us self-censors. Iron has entered the soul of universities in many other countries. It mustn't happen here.

Meanwhile, iNews reported on a UK offshoot of an American right-wing group which has asked students to send in videos and photos of perceived bias from "leftist lecturers" which it will then showcase on social media. They, like Young, pose as freedom of speech defenders, but are deeply offended by any ideas they disagree with and seek to shut down debate.

A spokesperson for UCU told iNews that the attempt to compile a hit list of professors has an "acrid whiff of McCarthyism about it". They also pointed out that trying to harass people you disagree with is not the way to defend freedom of speech.

Last updated: 6 March 2020

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